Once upon a time a woodcutter lived at the edge of a great forest with his wife and their two children. They had a boy called Hansl and a girl called Gretl. The family’s house was very small, it was just a hut really, and they were very poor, often they had to go to bed without any food. The woodcutter and his wife worried a great deal, and as time went by their situation seemed to get worse and worse. There were just not enough people around who needed the woodsman’s services. “How can we feed our children?” the woodcutter lamented, “when we have hardly enough to feed ourselves.”
His wife cried quietly. “there’s nothing for it”, she said, “tomorrow we’ll take them into the woods with us, and we’ll lose them somehow. We just can’t carry on like this.” The woodcutter wasn’t very happy when he heard his wife say this. “But what will happen to them, they’ll be in danger. Anything could happen, some wild animal might come along and eat them alive!” But his wife had made up her mind. “What can we do? We have no choice; if we stay together, surely we’ll all perish. At least if don’t have their mouths to feed, we might stand a chance.” Quietly her husband consented. He knew she was right, but he also knew that he was not able to take care of them.
Hansl and Gretl were in their beds in the next room. They couldn’t sleep either, and because the walls in their little house were so thin and flimsy, they had been able to hear the whole of their parents’ conversation. Gretl was terrified. “Hansl”, she cried, what are we going to do? Are we going to die?” Hansl was a very clever little boy. Immediately he had a plan. “Don’t worry, Gretl”, he whispered to his sister, “I’ll think of something. Just try and get some sleep, and tomorrow, just act normal. Don’t let our parents know that we’ve heard what they want to do.” After a while Gretl did fall asleep, and the little boy lay there waiting patiently. Eventually he could hear his father snoring, and he knew that his parents were asleep too. He got up as quietly as he could, tiptoed through his parents’ room, and went outside. There he collected lots of little white pebbles, as many as he could stuff in his pockets, and when they were full, he crept back inside and into his bed.
The next morning, at the crack of dawn, the children were woken up by their mother. Te only thing to have for breakfast was a little stale bread, which they ate quickly, and then they were off. They walked through the woods for several hours. The parents were very quiet, they hardly spoke a word, the woodsman walked ahead, determined, his wife followed and behind here Hansl and Gretl came. Every now and then Hansl would drop one of his little white pebbles in the middle of the path, or by the side of a rock, or by a tree root. He had almost used up all his pebbles when his father stopped in a little clearing in the wood. “Let’s make a fire here”, he said. Then you children can have a little rest, while mother and I go into the woods to do some cutting.” He made a small fire, the mother gave the children the last of the bread she had been saving, and then off she went with her husband. It only took a few seconds, and the disappeared amongst the trees. Hansl and Gretl sat down by the fire and ate the bread. Then they sat and waited. They waited for an hour, then another hour and another. Eventually they got so tired from waiting that they fell asleep. When they finally woke up, it was the middle of the night. The fire had long ago gone out, but there was a full moon, so they could see quite clearly. He took his sister’s hand, and they started walking back to where they’d come from. The bright moonlight meant that Hansl had no trouble finding his little white pebbles. They played a game, who could spot the next pebble first, and the time went so fast and they made such good headway that before they realised how far they’d come they could see their little house. The door was open and they went inside, where their father was just getting up. He was absolutely delighted to see them, and threw his arms up in the air and cried for joy. Their mother too was happy to see them again. It had been very hard indeed for these poor people to leave their children in the middle of that dark wood, and now they were just so relieved that they had survived and that they were back together again.
For some time they lived happily together, but their situation did not improve, in fact things just kept going from bad o worse. It seemed that the woodcutter could never make enough money to keep their bellies full. Before too long he and his wife had that same conversation again. “I really wish I could change things”, the mother said, “but it’s just impossible. I just can’t go on watching these children go hungry every day. Day in day out.” The woodcutter was very sad, he loved his children dearly, but there was nothing he could do or say to make the situation better. He had tried very hard to come up with some ideas to make some more money, but to no avail. They were not the only people in the area who were poor. Everybody was in the same boat. Even though it made him feel very guilty he felt he had no choice but to agree with his wife again. Just like the previous time, Hansl had been wide awake and had heard every word they had spoken. Hansl stayed awake until he could hear his father snoring, then he crept quietly through his parents’ room, to go out the door, but to his consternation the door was locked. This door was the only way out of the little house, so there was nothing to do for the poor boy but to crawl back into his bed, and think of something else that would help him and his little sister to find their way back home.
The next morning the children were woken up very early by their mother. For breakfast there was only some stale bread and they ate it quickly, except for Hansl. He didn’t eat his bread but stuffed it in his pockets. They set out again, the woodcutter leading the way, followed by his wife and the children trailing behind. Every now and then Hansl would drop a bread crumb, as he had done before with the pebbles. In the middle of the path, next to a rock, or by the side of the root of a tree. By and by they arrived at a clearing in the wood, and the woodcutter started a fire, “You children have a little rest here”, he said, “while mother and I go to cut some wood.” Mother gave the children the last few bits of the stale bread she had been saving, and off they went. Very quickly the trees swallowed them, and the children were left alone. Hey ate the bead, and waited. They waited an hour, then another hour and then another hour. Eventually the waiting tired them out and they fell asleep. When they woke up it was the middle of the night. Hansl took his little sister’s hand, and they started back the way they had come. But to his consternation, Hansl couldn’t find the breadcrumbs he had dropped so diligently. He realised the birds must have eaten them. The children tried to remember which way they had come. They walked this way a little, then that way, then another way yet, and they soon realised they were hopelessly lost. But they kept walking, as there was nothing else to do. Hansl was sure they’d find somebody who would help them.
They walked until they were so tired they just fell asleep were the stood, then carried n walking. Now and then they found some berries and nuts that they could eat, but it was very little and they got more and more hungry. Before long they lost all sense of time. They had no idea how any days and nights they had wandered through these woods, when suddenly they came upon a most extraordinary little house in the middle of a small clearing. They couldn’t believe their eyes, they house appeared to have been constructed from loaves of bread, cakes, fruit pies, biscuits and candy. They ran up to it and just started tearing bits of the delicacies from the walls of the little house. They were so hungry they never stopped to think what they were doing, and they stuffed their mouths, when suddenly they heard a loud croaky voice: “Nibbly gwibbly gnawsy, who’s that chomping at my housey?”
The front door, covered in huge gingerbread men, opened, and their stood a little grey woman, older than anybody the children had ever see. Her back was crooked, and she had a great big knobbly nose, and hairs were growing out of her chin. Her teeth were as black as charcoal, and her face and her hands were covered in wrinkles. At first Hansl and Gretl were frightened by this apparition, but the old lady spoke, and she appeared o be quite friendly. “Children, children”, she croaked. “Wellcome to my humble little abode, why don’t you darlings come inside and I’ll treat you to some milk and pancakes.” The children were delighted to hear this, and they stepped inside. The old lady sat them at a table and poured them some delicious cold milk. The table was covered with goodies. They ate and ate until their stomachs couldn’t take any more. The old lady showed them into a little bedroom, with two lovely beds, with soft mattresses and quilted covers. Before they could say “Goodnight” they were fast asleep.
When Hansl woke up, he tried to sit up but he bumped his head on something. He realised he was inside a cage! The floor was wood, so was the ceiling, and three sides. One side was a metal door with bars, which was locked with a giant padlock! He shook his head, was he dreaming? He shouted: “Help! Help! Gretl, where are you?”
Just then, Gretl was still in bed, but the old woman had come into her room, and was shaking her roughly. “Wake up, wake up, you lazy little slut. Time to get up and do some work!” She pulled Gretl out of the bed, and handed her a broom. “Start sweeping!” she commanded. It now became obvious to the children that this old woman, who had been so kind to them the previous evening, was an old witch, and a very bad one at that. Gretl was made to work all day long, she had to sweep and scrub the floors, she had to clean the windows and wash the curtains, she had to prepare food and cook it. Then she had to scour al the pots and pans, the plates and cups and knives and forks. She had to weed the path outside and water the plants. She wasn’t allowed to rest for a minute. At the end of the day, just before she fell asleep because she was so exhausted, the witch would throw her a few scraps of food to eat. But Hansl was treated very well. Apart from being locked up in his cage, that is. Every few minutes the witch would bring him something to eat. Some buttered bread and cheese one minute, sausages in gravy the next, apples and pears, carrots and beets. He hardly had time to digest the morsels the witch fed him, when the next one came along. The witch would stand by his cage and watch him, to make sure he ate every last bite of the food she gave him. She’d stand there, bent over, watching him and giggling. “Eat, my little sweet one”, she’d croak, “eat and get fat! Heha heha heha!”
Very rarely did the children get an opportunity to talk to each other. The witch was always ordering Gretl about, as soon as she’d finish one job, the witch would give her another one. And when she wasn’t ordering Gretl about, she was in front of Hansl’s cage, feeding him, fattening him up. She’d order him to stick a finger out through the bars, and she’d feel it and inspect it. When Gretl saw this she realised what the witch was doing. She was fattening up her brother to eat him, and she was checking his finger to see how fat he was getting! She knew it was up to her to rescue him, because he was totally powerless, locked up in that cage with the metal bars and the padlock. The key was hidden under the witch’s mattress, it was impossible to get near there without being seen. She came up with a clever little plan to gain some time. She found a little stick, and one minute, when the witch was having her supper, she slipped it into the cage, and told Hansl to stick it out next time the witch came to check his finger. Gretl had noticed that the witch’s eyesight wasn’t very good. She knew they wouldn’t be able to fool her for very long, but she just needed to buy some time to come up with a good plan!
The plan with the little stick worked quite well. The witch didn’t realise she was being fooled; she’d feel the thin stick, and mutter to herself. “A little bit more, a few more days, a few more pounds. Heha, heha, heha!” Weeks and weeks went by, and eventually the witch lost patience. The boy just wasn’t putting on any weight! She had enough. She called out to Gretl. “Fetch me some firewood”, she said. “I’m going to light the oven and roast that stupid brother of yours, skinny or not! I can’t wait any longer, I’ve just gotta eat him!”
Gretl came back with a bunch of firewood. The witch opened the oven door, and told Gretl to put the firewood inside. Gretl pushed the wood as far back into the oven as it would go, then stood back. “Well?!” shouted the witch. “What are you waiting for? Light it up!” Gretl knew very well how to light the wood in the oven, she’d seen the witch do it several times, but she pretended to be dum. “How do you o that?” she asked in a little girl voice. The witch threw her arms in the air and cursed her. “Oh bother, I’ll do it myself”, she said. She picked up one of the big matches she used for this job, and stuck her head inside the oven door. Gretl had really pushed the wood all the way back, so the witch had to lean all the way into the oven. Gretl quickly took her chance, lifted up the witch’s legs and pushed her all the way into the oven, and then quickly shut the oven door on her. Gretl quickly ran into the witch’s bedroom and got the key. She opened up Hansl’s cage, and the boy had got so fat the he only just about managed to crawl out. “Well done sis!” he cried. They could hear the witch kicking against the inside of the oven door, and they could just about hear her croaking voice pleading with them to let her out. “I’ll be kind to you again”, she cried, “just wait and see, I can be a very nice old witch!” But the children left her where she was, and started looking through all the witch’s cupboards and chests of drawers to see if they could find anything useful for their journey before they escaped from that horrible place. To their great surprise they found bags full of gold coins and precious stones. They carried as much as they could out of the house and started walking away, glad to still be alive.
As they walked along the path away from the horrible witch’s house, some birds flew done from the trees, and asked what had happened to the wicked witch. “She’s locked up in the oven” said Gretl, “I think she’ll be in there for some time!” The birds were very happy. They had always been scared of the witch who used to like to catch birds and eat them. To show their gratitude to Hansl and Gretl, they guided them all the way home. When the children got home their parents were so happy to see them that they cried tears of joy. They hugged and kissed each of them in turn, and promised the children that whatever happened, however poor they might be, they would never try to get rid of them again. Hansl then gave his father the bag full of gold coins and precious stones he’d carried all the way back with him. “Look father”, he said, “Look what we found, we’ll never have to be poor again!” And so it happened. The woodcutter was able to build a nice big house for his family, and they now were rich enough to buy all the food they needed for the rest of their lives!